Stroll, bike and wildlife watch along the Yukon River in Whitehorse Canada to recall the heady years of the Gold Rush in the Yukon Canada. Discover the best Whitehorse attractions today.
Canada’s Yukon residents claim that 5% of the population are “colourful characters” and I agree. After all, who can argue, when the likes of Klondike Kate and Robert Service are counted among this group? However, the Yukon boasts amazing natural phenomena too: it’s the Land of the Midnight Sun and home to the massive ice fields of Kluane National Park.
As well, its capital, Whitehorse, is situated on a wild and mighty river, the Yukon. It became famous for its navigational challenges during 1897 to 1899, the early Gold Rush days.
Today, its meandering watercourse as it approaches the city belies the excruciating treachery of Miles Canyon before the hydro dam drowned its rapids in 1958.
Thanks to interpretational signs, when strolling Whitehorse’s 5km Millenium Trail, we can gather hints about the river’s wild and woolly past.
On that trail, we can connect to the 15km Yukon River Loop Trail to Miles Canyon, where signage explains more about the river’s history.
Before setting out, if you’re like me, you’ll find a visit to two of Whitehorse’s museums beneficial because they provide insights into the human and natural history of the region. But first, head to the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre.
Beringia was the ancient bridge of land connecting what’s now Siberia and Alaska. This Centre explains the geology, the mammals (think sabre-toothed tigers and Klondike horse) and first peoples of what is now the Yukon.
Also visit McBride Museum of Yukon History, where animators recite Robert Service poetry and where you’ll learn about many of the “5% characters” who lived here.
Whitehorse Attractions – Millenium Trail highlights
From downtown Whitehorse, finding the well-signed 5km Millenium Trail extending along the river is easy. Hike or bike it, and take binoculars to look for birds such as bald eagles and common mergansers. Along the route, you’ll discover these Whitehorse attractions:
S.S. Klondike II National Historic Site of Canada
Starting from 1866 when the S.S. Wilder was the first sternwheeler steamboat to navigate the Yukon River, these boats became very active here. After the start of the Gold Rush, more than 60 joined the already operational group.
The S.S. Klondike is near the beginning of the Millenium Trail and its sheer size makes one marvel at how these boats conveyed people, livestock and goods along the waterways.
Built in 1929 in Whitehorse by the British Yukon Navigation Company, it had a large cargo capacity which was 50 per cent more than its competition on the river.
S.S. Klondike plied the Whitehorse to Stewart Landing waters, carrying supplies and ore from the Mayo Mining District, where silver was being mined.
Although the original steamboat sank in 1936 – S.S. Klondike II was built and immediately put to work. It ran the 740 km Whitehorse to Dawson City route in 36 hours until the beginning of WW II.
By then, steamship traffic had been superseded by rail, but S.S. Klondike II continued to serve, transporting supplies for the construction of the Alaska Highway.
After a few more years of operating as a passenger boat, S.S. Klondike II became the last sternwheeler to travel the Yukon River on August 1955.
Operated by Parks Canada as a National Historic Site, in season it’s possible to explore its decks or get a tour of the steamship.
Robert Service Campground
Robert Service Campground recalls the famed poet aka the “Bard of the Yukon.” Born in Preston, England, he emigrated to Canada in 1895 and fell in love with the north, penning many novels and volumes of poetry. His “Cremation of Sam McGee” is a Canadian classic, and Service’s famous opening stanza still evokes a shivery thrill:
There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.
Yukon River Loop Trail
The Millenium Trail connects to the Yukon River Loop, a 15km trail which can be walked, biked, or else as I did, you can drive to points along it. Choose your mode of transport but don’t miss visiting these inspiring sites. Lookout Hill, for instance, offers a good “aerial” perspective of the waterway.
The Whitehorse Dam
The infamous roiling rapids swirling above Whitehorse were the most dangerous along the entire 3,200km length of the Yukon River.
Many Gold Rush stampeders (people travelling to the Klondike) died while attempting it; many boats were destroyed along its stretch.
The rapids defined this spot in another way, too. Early European explorers viewing the white crests of these surging waves thought they resembled billowing manes of galloping white horses. So it’s these now-tamed rapids which gave Yukon’s capital city its name.
Today’s hydro-electric dam, constructed in 1957-58 and costing $7.2 million, drowned the dangerous swirling eddies and treacherous waves found along the chasm known as Miles Canyon. Want to paddle the water below the dam? Get up close and personal and ponder the earlier rapids by renting a kayak and exploring here.
Longest wooden fish ladder in world
Although the dam represented progress to human beings, it was an insurmountable obstacle to Chinook salmon, which make an annual migration to spawn upriver.
Happily, human ingenuity stepped in to save the salmon. In 1959 a wooden fish ladder was built to allow these amazingly athletic animals to bypass the dam.
That first year, 1,054 made it through. That’s a huge feat because each individual must negotiate a rise of more than 15 metres and a distance of 366 meters to make it upstream to spawn.
Inside the Fish Interpretation Centre, learn about the Chinook and, possibly you might even see some of them swimming here during the late July to August migration season.
A glass window into a section of the ladder may reveal some fish resting before continuing their ascent up the longest wooden fish ladder in the world. Also look outside.
During migration, you might see them jumping up the ladder. It’s sobering to witness the energy it takes for each fish to attempt, re-attempt and hopefully manage to leap all the way upstream.
The people of the rapids: A bit of First Nations history
Over time, archaeological digs along the river near Whitehorse have revealed that ancient peoples built portages and trails so as to avoid the dangerous rapids once surging here.
Southern Tutchone and Tagish peoples who dwelled in interior Yukon, plus a coastal tribe called the Tlingit came here. They would camp above and below the rapids to fish, gather foods, and trade goods and news.
Signs and photographs at the fish ladder reveal how Yukon First Nations used – and still use – Chinook for food.
Despite the dam, above it, Miles Canyon is a spectacular chasm where the Yukon River forces its way through a narrow channel of basaltic cliffs.
We can only imagine how the rapids would have looked without the 10 metres’ depth of water created by that dam, which drowned the treacherous waters.
Katharine Fletcher is a freelance writer and author of such books as Capital Rambles: Exploring the National Capital Region.
For more information on other Whitehorse attractions as well as what to see in Canada go to Best of Canada.
One of the best times of year to visit the Yukon is during the Yukon Quest, when dog teams race between Whitehorse and Fairbanks, Alaska.
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